Which jobs can you do? And, which require a pro?

Is It a DIY Job?

by E. E. Kane


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When we bought our home in foreclosure, it was suffering the effects of former fixes that didn't work out so well. That's being gracious. Electric wire was stapled to the walls, snaking up to light fixtures and receptacles, with haphazard connections when the wire apparently ran short. Above-the-floor plumbing, combined with inadequate heat and no insulation, resulted in burst pipes. The great miracle was not that anyone had lived there, but that they made it out alive.

This was exactly the kind of mess we were looking for. My husband, raised in the construction business and a master electrician, had the chops and tools for the job. As we encountered each miserable attempt by the former owners, it was all too easy to question their judgment. What money they poured into the home was misspent. Years down the road, we have a vastly improved home, yet there are areas that make us scratch our heads and say, "What were we thinking when we did it that way?"

Some remodeling projects are completely doable by the homeowner, with the right tools, knowledge, materials, and prep work. Other projects are best left to a contractor. How do you know where the line is? That's mostly up to your experience, available time, and willingness to make the effort and spend the money to do it right. From a financial angle, it can really pay off to DIY. Even if you have to DIY twice, it's cheaper than hiring a contractor.

Sheer determination isn't always enough. You could harm the resale value of your home with a botched remodel. Your home could be canceled or turned down for coverage, as most insurance companies require proof that a contractor performed the work for major repairs.

Your safety is a graver matter. In a study by the Bureau of Labor and Statistics in 2008, the occupation with the second highest amount of fatalities was construction trade workers. Pause and think. Do you have good health and life insurance? Have you made out your will?

Here is a short list of repairs that need expert handling to guarantee quality and a good return on your investment:

  • Electricity: Any wiring inside the walls, ceiling, or panel box should be handled by a licensed, insured electrician.

  • Plumbing: Avoid jobs involving enclosed pipes, which, if done incorrectly, could weaken surrounding structures and cause mold.

  • Roofing: Steep roof angles and tricky dormer windows are just two conditions that could lead to costly mistakes.

  • Refinishing Hardwood Flooring: Running a drum sander is a little scary for a beginner. You can easily leave dips and scratches. Only attempt it if you have a less-conspicuous area for adequate practice, like a child's bedroom or the mudroom.

So how does a homeowner on a tight budget keep his home ship-shape? He evaluates his resources (or lack thereof) and blends them with the best help he can find to make the most of his investment. If you are anything like us, you'll stubbornly persist in finding a way to do it yourself (although even my husband wisely hired a contractor to install the HVAC system). Try these ideas:

  1. Barter your skills with another skilled tradesman.

  2. Attend classes. Home Depot and other home improvement stores hold classes on specific projects, like laying tile. Some classes are free.

  3. An online tutorial may be all you need to beef up on a subject. A case in point is drywall. It's a little tricky, but with a good tutorial and practice, you can do it. Be aware that some tutorials won't cover the odd bump in the road of a repair. Older homes are notorious for throwing a monkey wrench into the job just as you reach a very critical point. Practice sufficiently before you do the job.

  4. Sometimes more hands will improve the result nearly as much as skill level, such as roofing a house.

  5. Hire a contractor only for the most difficult parts of a project (he runs the drum sander on your wood floor, and you stain and finish), or work out a deal where you do the unskilled grunt work in exchange for a reduced bottom line.

Tackling a remodeling project is financially worthwhile and can be enormously gratifying. Ensure your project is a success story, and not a disaster, with plenty of research and foresight. Otherwise, your repairs could cost more in the long run, and all of your labor (sweat, blood and tears) will not turn into equity.


E. E. Kane is the joint pen name for Evan and Emma Kane's freelance writing business.

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